Atlanta Hawks' Jeff Teague drives past Charlotte Hornets' Al Jefferson and Marvin Williams. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
With the Atlanta Hawks visiting the Charlotte Hornets at Time Warner Cable Arena Sunday afternoon (Monday Manila time), the Hornets were eager to extend a four-straight home-opening game win streak to five.
The Hawks had other plans. And through the first half, the Hawks remained on course, leading 46-39.
However, the Hornets got fired up in the third quarter and posted a third quarter season-high 37 points after averaging just 16.5 ppg in their first two games of the season. The Hornets started chipping away at the lead by taking advantage of the Hawks' cooled shooting, which banked only 24 points in the third.
As arguably the Hornets' biggest offseason bargain, Hornets guard Jeremy Lin came into the third quarter with 3 minutes remaining and sank a 24-foot 3-point jump shot from guard Nicolas Batum a minute later to put the Hornets up 72-68. Lin followed this with a 2-foot running lay-up, a block, and a steal off newly minted Hawk forward Tiago Splitter, all within 20 seconds. Lin's theatrics helped put the Hornets ahead 76-70 at the end of the third.
Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer attributed the third quarter numbers to the Hornets' aggressive style of play. "I thought it started with their defense. They upped their physicality, their activity. They were really good defensively. And we didn't respond to their energy and their physicality. It lead to 37 points. I don't even know what we had, but it wasn't good."
But, the Hawks refused to go quietly in this critical early season road game. As a top-heavy team returning five All-Stars from last season, the Hawks kept it close and traded baskets with the Hornets in a back-and-forth situation coming down to the final seconds of the game ending in a jump ball situation. Ultimately, the Hawks prevailed and handed the Hornets their first home-opener loss in five seasons, 94-92.
After the game, Budenholzer emphasized his team's ability to stay calm and play on.
" They all knew the third wasn't our best. I think getting a stop on the last possession (of the third) when (Hawks guard) Thabo Sefolosha hit a big shot to kind of go into that fourth quarter, I think started it all. I think the way the group responded in the fourth quarter on the road after Charlotte came out with a ton of aggressiveness, both defensively and offensively with 37 points in the third quarter, kind of had us on our heels to start the fourth quarter. They found a way to right themselves."
"We went on a 14-3 run just to get us righted, which is not easy to do on the road. To find a way to get a couple of stops, a couple of rebounds, a couple big shots from Kent Bazemore, Paul Millsap and Kent (Bazemore) making free throws."
Budenholzer stated that the familiarity the Hawks have in playing with each other helps pull the team through tight, close battles like the one Sunday afternoon with the Hornets.
"I think a lot of the group has been together for at least one year, and some of us three. It was great that Tiago (Splitter) was able to go in there and give us a couple of minutes, a big tip-in, a couple of stops, just to give Al Horford a minute break. Having a veteran like Tiago who can step into a close game on the road and feel good is key."
Hawks center Horford agreed. "(Having Tiago) is big. Tiago is big for us. He's able to make game-winning plays. That's what he does. I'm very happy that he can take some pressure off us other bigs."
Grabbing key road wins against teams early in the season is important considering future matchups are inevitable. Budenholzer articulated that, "Anytime you win on the road, it's a good thing. If you want to have success in this league and want to be a good team, we know how important it is to have that 'road mentality' where attention to detail gets even higher and your physicality has to be greater, along with your focus, your togetherness. Everything has to be better on the road, and I think our group understands that."
Horford agreed and indicated that there is more work to be done.
"We have to keep getting better where we're able to build a lead and hold it. It's early in the year, so we're still learning, figuring things out. But we'll take this win on the road."
One of the newer faces to the Hawks is guard Kent Bazemore, who joined the team in 2014. Horford felt that Bazemore "looks really good and played with a lot of confidence" against the Hornets on Sunday. Horford added that Bazemore's confidence and activity "separates him and makes him special. We need his activity both offensively and defensively."
As for Bazemore, a native of North Carolina, felt confident playing in his home state and in the corners on the floor.
"I'm super confident in corner three. That's probably my favorite spot, the left corner. When the ball is in the air, I just set my feet and let it go." However, Bazemore understood that the season is still young. "We still have some other things to do. We have a lot of 'getting better' to do. If we want to take the next step as a team early in the year, we have to continue to do what Coach (Budenholzer) tells us to do: take care of the ball when we're up. A win like this early in the year helps with your confidence, so down the road when the tougher games come along with playoffs and seeding, we know how to play championship basketball."
Of note: Four Hawks racked up points in the double digits, including Paul Millsap (16) and Jeff Teague (18). Kent Bazemore had the game-high 20 points, while Al Horford ended the night with the team's only double-double, 16 points and 12 rebounds. Four Hornets also tallied in the double digits for scoring, including Marvin Williams (15), Nicolas Batum (16), Kemba Walker (17), and Al Jefferson, who garnered the team's only double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.